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Hot Springs

Hot Springs
Getting There
The Baths
There is plenty to do in Hot Springs, especially if you include the surrounding county. You can get up close and personal with an alligator, bet on the horses, paddle a canoe, catch a trophy fish, ride a horse, and hike up a mountain. There are roller coasters, jet skiis, Ducks, and cruise boats. Hot Springs likes to say it was America's very first resort, the resort that taught us what it was like to take a vacation. While the town has always been a popular vacation destination among Little Rock, Memphis, St. Louis and Dallas and Chicago residents, these days it is being discovered by everybody else. So after you've taken the baths and wandered down Bathhouse Row, you need to spend a day or so seeing what else is available.

Oaklawn is THE thoroughbred racetrack in Arkansas or any of its surrounding states. It's 100 years old and the Arkansas Derby is a huge event, in that elite tier of races along with the Florida Derby, Santa Anita and Keeneland Oaks, that are the qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown. In recent years Oaklawn has sent several Arkansas Derby winners on to victory in the Kentucky Derby. One of the factors allowing Oaklawn to pay such huge purses and thus attract the elite horses is its off track gaming. Oaklawn is open year round, even when the horses aren't running, for people to come and try their luck at blackjack, poker or one of the electronic games. Oaklawn is a very modern, state of the art facility, with all the conveniences and luxuries of a major racing complex. The Carousel Terrace is the largest restaurant, offering both buffet and menu service surrounded by one of the nation's finest collections of antique Merry Go Round horses. Downstairs, the Post Parade provides a traditional menu, and the Oyster Bar, Pony Express and Sweet Shoppe offer quick service. Reserved grandstand seats are only $2.50 on weekdays and $4.50 on weekends. Oaklawn is on Central Avenue / Route 7, South of town.

Duck Tours are a lot of fun and depart every hour from right across the street from the Arlington. You go about half for the actual tour and half just to ride the amphibious vehicle, a nicely painted and maintained version of the ones that carried soldiers ashore at the Invasion of Normandy on D Day. A Duck bounces, leans and churns, so it's almost like an amusement park ride. You'll get a 90 minute tourist's overview of the Hot Springs area, spending about two thirds of the time on land and a third on the lakes south of town.
Magic Springs is a surprisingly good amusement park just north of town on Route 7. This park does not get much attention from the national amusement park press, but it offers five sophisticated coasters and the usual collection of other rides. These include a log flume, pirate ship, carousel, drop tower, boat plunge and swings. Shown at left is The Arkansas Twister, a classic woodie that was renovated in 2000. It is a 3500 ft. out and back terrain coaster with a 92 ft. first drop. But there is also X Coaster, The Gauntlet, Twist & Shout, Big Bad John, and The Diamond Mine. Water park fans can try Crystal Falls, with the usual tube slides, speed slides, a lazy river, and wave pool. The park recently opened Timberwood Amphitheater, which it uses for major concerts from May through October. Coaster fans make Magic Springs an annual stop. It's worth at least a good afternoon.
The Lakes offer enough recreation for a week. Shown at right is the Belle of Hot Springs, a cruise boat that offers daily 90 minute lake tours plus dinner cruises. There are fishing guides who will have you pulling in photo worthy catches on one day trips. Canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, water bikes, row boats and jet skiis are for rent at several locations. There are three lakes : Catherine, Hamilton (shown here) and Ouachita, the biggest. All have beaches, campgrounds and cabins. Windsurfing is only beginning to catch on; there are a few places renting equipment but you'll be one of the few on the water. Horseback riding and hiking trails line all three lakes, mostly fanning out from the state parks.
If you're into festivals, there are two down here you really have to time your visit for. The first is the World Brick Throw Championships over at Malvern (only a mile from the interstate near Lake Catherine). This important competition is part of Brickfest, the celebration of Malvern as the world brick capitol. Due mainly to the high quality clay in Central Arkansas, Malvern's brick furnaces have achieved a reputation for the finest bricks made. Every June they host Brickfest, where brick throwers from regional competitions converge to pit their skills against each other. Malvern has the world's finest Brick Throw Arena (cynics would suggest it is the ONLY such facility in the world). While there, you can also visit the Brick Throw Hall Of Fame and the Brick Museum, and attend the Miss Brick Pageant. If you're into bricks, this will probably be one of the highlights of your entire life.

But even better awaits down in Magnolia. There they host the National Rototiller Championships every July as part of the National Purple Hull Pea Festival. They have divisions for Mantis, Walking and Riding Tillers. And the highlight of the week is the crowning of the Tiller Goddess and her court of Tiller Girls. Anyone wanting to see what the best of Arkansas womanhood looks like has to come to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and attend the Tiller Goddess Pageant.


Garvin Gardens sounds like just what a bunch of travelling teenagers would avoid at all costs, but it's actually pretty cool. Run by the University of Arkansas, it is a botanical gardens displaying plants as they would occur in Nature. Located along 4.5 miles of Lake Hamilton shoreline, the 210 acre Gardens includes a gift shop, snack bar, outdoor model train layout and a spectacular open air cathedral. It's a pleasant hike through the woods, but the going is slow because there's the temptation to stop at every bend in the trail to take a few pictures. Verna Cook Garvin originally owned the land and developed the garden, but she willed it to the University of Arkansas Landscape Architecture School upon her death to make sure it was preserved in its natural state. It took them over 10 years to catalogue all the plants and come up with a plan to open the garden for public viewing. Over a lifetime, Verna Cook Garvin had painstakingly transplanted samples of every native Arkansas woodland plant she could find and placed it in a setting allowing it to prosper. Today, this garden is the best example in the state of what an Arkansas woodland looked like before the coming of the white man. Since the habitat is so pristine, most of the birds, smaller mammals and other animals native to Arkansas have prospered here, so while 210 acres is too small for a complete ecosystem, Garvin Gardens comes pretty close. In addition to the main wooded acreage, there is a Children's Garden, a Bonsai Garden and a Chapel Area kept busy with weddings.
The Arkansas Alligator Farm is definitely worth a stop. It's been there since 1902 and might be considered the first tourist attraction in Hot Springs beyond the mineral springs themselves and the Arlington Hotel. 107 years later, the alligators are still there. They're not imported from anywhere; they're native to Arkansas and most of these came to the farm as gatlings whose mothers had been killed or disappeared. You can pet a few and get up close and personal with several more. They're slow and lovable when their bellies are full and they're basking in the sun, but they're definitely big and if one caught you in the water you would be in serious trouble. There are demonstrations and talks. From the Arlington, turn right up Central Avenue to the Y intersection. Turn left on Whittington. Follow it out of town and look for the Alligator Farm on your left.
The Gangster Museum is only a few steps up Central Avenue from the Arlington. It focuses on the 1920-50 period of Hot Springs history, when the town was wide open and criminals declared it a neutral zone so they could vacation here. New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and Atlantic City gangsters came for the mineral baths, horseracing, gambling salons and deals over dinner without watching for FBI agents. It was a time when Al Capone could maintain a suite on the second floor of the Arlington with his name on a brass plate on the door, when Owney Madden, owner of the Cotton Club in Harlem, could marry the Hot Springs Postmaster's daughter, run the wire service bringing race data to local bookies, and eventually own the Southern Club, across from the Arlington, currently the Wax Museum. The museum occupies space that was a bordello in Capone's day. This is a narrowly focused but very good museum.
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